Bridging the racial gap in STEM education

Early education, parenting, and industry support: More than 500 children and parents, mostly from African American and Latin American communities in the Chicago area, attended the 2015 ChiS&E orientation at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Experts from National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Engineering offered advice about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. See three STEM tips for parents and for engineers.

By Joy Chang, CFE Media November 8, 2015

The Chicago Pre-College Science & Engineering Program (ChiS&E) held its fall 2015 orientation session at the University of Illinois-Chicago on Sept. 19. More than 500 children and parents, mostly from African American and Latin American communities in the Chicago area, attended the event. The keynote speaker, Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) presented critical statistics about the racial gap in STEM education and encouraged attendees to start STEM education early.

Founded by Kenneth Hill in 2008, Chicago’s ChiS&E has been providing inner city children and their parents from underrepresented communities the rare opportunity of engaging in hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

The nature of the problem

During his speech at the orientation, Dr. McPhail showed research data from NACME and identified the following facts to stress the importance of moving more underrepresented minority students into the STEM field.

"This is a serious problem for America. By 2050 no one race/ethnic category will be a majority." The less we engage the ability of the "new majority of Americans to compete, the more we will be threatened," suggested Dr. McPhail. Some of the key data included:

  • Underrepresented minorities in STEM are three groups that have the lowest representation in the engineering education and the engineering workforce. These three groups are: African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians.
  • By 2050, there will no longer be a majority race. The diversifying U.S. population makes it clear that the key to America’s future global competitiveness in STEM is engaging underrepresented populations at all stages of the educational pathway. Currently, there is a relatively low representation of underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields.
  • African Americans make up 13.2% of the U.S. population. Despite a representative sample of African Americans seen in other degree programs, they are exceedingly underrepresented in engineering. African Americans only represent 4% of engineering bachelor’s degree recipients, 3.6% of the engineering workforce, and 2.6% of engineering faculty.
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives are not prevalent in engineering. Although they make up 1.2% of the total population, they represent only 0.4% of all engineering bachelor’s degree recipients, 0.3% of the engineering workforce, and 0.1% of all engineering faculty.
  • Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. Currently, they represent 17.5% of the overall population and are expected to represent close to 27% of the population by 2050. Their representation in engineering, however, is not increasing proportionately. They constitute 9.0% of engineering bachelor’s degree recipients, 6.3% of the engineering workforce, and 3.7% of engineering faculty.
  • SAT scores for Illinois residents are much higher on average than the SAT scores of students in other locations. The average SAT score for Illinois residents is 616, compared to the national average of 513. However, the racial divide remains, as African American students score 95 points below their white peers and 137 points below their Asian peers.

Early education for STEM

To move more underrepresented minority students into the STEM field, Dr. McPhail stressed that early intervention efforts are needed to close the achievement gap. Early education and parenting are two key components of the early intervention.

ChiS&E provides early education to students from these groups. With free science and engineering workshops for students and their parents in grades K-3 to K-12, ChiS&E is developing and implementing family engagement programs in the field of early childhood education.

To add another important subject in the STEM field, physics, to the ChiS&E program, ChiS&E partnered with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and Chicago Public Schools to create the new physics program for 7th grade students. Dr. Kevin Pitts, associate dean of undergraduate programs and professor of physics at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Engineering, presented after Dr. McPhail to introduce the new program and inspired attendees to pursue STEM and see the fun side of physics.

Three STEM tips for parents

Parents should follow these strategies to inspire their children to pursue STEM education and careers:

  1. Be role models: Parents should introduce students to the STEM fields and cultivate student interest.
  2. Make STEM relatable: Video games, music, computers, cell phones, and automobiles are created by engineers.
  3. Encourage children to participate in extracurricular activities like clubs, field trips, after-school programs, and science research competitions.

Three ways working engineers can help STEM diversity

During an interview with CFE Media, Dr. McPhail presented three ways that working engineers and the industry can help support the development of underrepresented minorities’ talent in the engineering field.

1. Awareness

Reach out to the K-12 sector, actively engage the students and parents to raise awareness about STEM education, present engineering as a viable career choice, emphasize the excitement of innovation, serve as role models for young people, and provide infrastructure and tools to students via schools.

2. Sponsor scholarships

Companies can provide scholarship support for underrepresented minority students to enroll in and to excel in engineering education. So far, NACME has provided over $142 million in support to over 24,000 engineering students over 41 years. A large portion of the scholarship came from 32 companies that are a part of the NACME board of directors.

3. Provide internships

Companies can also be effective in providing internship opportunities. Internships will provide students with practical experiences and networking opportunities that can then lead to future hiring opportunities upon their graduation. The 2013-14 graduating NACME Scholars reported on 160 internship and co-op experiences at 118 companies, which represented industry, government, and higher education.

"The corporate sector is key, and practicing engineers are key. Their volunteerism and engagement can help move the needle in unrepresented minority representation in technology and engineering," said McPhail.

More about ChiS&E

The ChiS&E provides highly engaging, age-appropriate, hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities for Chicago Public School (CPS) students in grades K-3 to K-12 and their parents.

ChiS&E has been awarded a $450,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) for its work in "developing and implementing transformative family engagement programs in the field of early childhood education." ChiS&E is one of 30 organizations out of 1,130 applicants, nationwide to be so honored; and one of only two organizations funded in the state of Illinois.

The free programs take place in the spring and fall of each year, kicked off by an orientation session designed to familiarize parents and their children with the process for engineering programs. Parental participation is an essential component of the program. 

– Joy Chang is digital project manager, CFE Media,

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